GDC 2009: EA Play head explains indie advantage

Executive by day, bedroom coder by night, Rod Humble takes time out from his double life to deliver an Independent Games Summit keynote.

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SAN FRANCISCO--At first glance, the keynote speaker at Tuesday's Independent Games Summit lineup doesn't fit in. Considering that the biggest names in the indie-focused miniconference tend to be names such as 2D Boy, Metanet, and Stardock--responsible for World of Goo, N+, and Galactic Civilizations II, respectively--starting the day with Electronic Arts' executive vice president in charge of the megapublisher's Sims brand and Hasbro games was unexpected.

EA Play head Rod Humble
EA Play head Rod Humble

However, the choice makes more sense when considering that the EA Play head is Rod Humble, a former indie developer who spends his spare time plugging away on experimental indie projects such as The Marriage. Having seen the industry from both sides of the indie/corporate fence, Humble gave advice to struggling and aspiring developers in a half-hour presentation spiked with wit.

Acknowledging straight away that "I do represent the face of the great Satan," Humble established his credibility on games running the spectrum of genre and quality, from The Humans on the PC to the Sega CD furry fighter Brutal and The Sims 3. He also touched on his indie games such as The Marriage, Stars Over Half Moon Bay, and his upcoming project, Perfect Distance, which he described as "My Ishtar."

Humble drew upon his wealth of experience to offer some advice, starting with something that he acknowledged was pretty simple and self-evident. "Just go out there and do it," he said, telling the audience to make the game they want to make however they want to make it, keeping what works and tossing the rest.

The Sims 3 is the sort of game Humble makes for EA.
The Sims 3 is the sort of game Humble makes for EA.

He emphasized that developers need to be making their games for the right reason: out of a love of games. Other acceptable motivations for Humble include making the world a better place by bringing joy, and doing it for the glory, which he acknowledged might be controversial.

"It's OK to want to see your name in lights and say I achieved something," Humble said, although he cautioned that you shouldn't expect recognition.

Finally, Humble said that getting into game development because it's literally your only marketable skill is another valid motivator. But above all else, "Don't do it for the money. If you want to blow $50,000, this is a fantastic way to do it." Humble points to his own upstart studio, the unfortunately titled Harmless Games, as an endeavor that ate up his life savings and left him broke.

For those who actually want money, Humble suggests a life of crime, given that most criminals are stunningly dumb, or buying some blue-chip stocks (he suggests Electronic Arts) and waiting for the economy to rebound. But, he cautions, money will never write an e-mail thanking a developer for making a great game.

Humble told the crowd that indie developers could benefit from concerning themselves a bit more with business matters because the lack of financial pressures and debt leaves developers with more stress-free development time. Things they shouldn't worry about so much include getting into legal fights with publishers, fretting over message-board posts, and making chart-topping games. Developers also spend too much time worrying that the publishers are out to get them.

"Believe it or not, your publisher doesn't hate you," Humble told the crowd. "They look at you like a commodity and a way to turn $100,000 into $1 million."

The Marriage is the sort of game Humble makes for himself.
The Marriage is the sort of game Humble makes for himself.

Humble said that developers should be much more concerned with "grown-up metrics," such as creating accurate sales forecasts for games and keeping their research-and-development spending less than 30 percent of the project's total budget. And even though it gets mentioned time and again at conferences like these, Humble emphasized sticking to the game's development schedule, even if it means cutting features.

Advice aside, Humble began listing the advantages that independent developers have over their corporate counterparts. First off all, they can take risks. It's significantly easier for indie developers to make a play at a new or unproven market and have a breakout hit than for the major publisher investing $20 million into each project. They also have creative control, Humble said. Although he has to make Harry Potter games and compete in certain genres year-in and year-out, indie developers aren't working with those constraints.

One particularly important concept that Humble tried to convey is that failure is just part of the game.

"You're going to fail," Humble said. "Even if your first game is a big hit, your second game might fail. Be prepared for it. If there's one thing I admire about all great game developers--Peter Molyneux, Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto--they've all fallen flat on their face and been written off at one point or another, then came back."

For more from the conference, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of the 2009 Game Developers Conference.

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